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On Reading Trash

February 26th, 2009

It all depends on how you define “trash”, of course. On a bad day I’d probably define it as anything I don’t read. But on a better day, when I’m trying on my post-structuralist hat (I’ve got a lot of hats but I’m not actually convinced I suit any of them), I’d tell you there was no such thing. I’d say that literature and trash may often be set against one another but that there’s no real reason why they should be.

It’s what you do with a text that matters. Readers can engage with a complexly crafted text as well as a much simpler one on the same sort of intellectual level: I can make use of Mills and Boon to think about aspiration; I can make use of Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife to do the same thing. From this perspective we are less likely to see “literature” and “trash” as opposites, and instead of spending time distinguishing between two extremes, we are more likely to spend it critically exploring the themes a text represents: what is important is the level of thinking generated. I should have used this argument when I was asked, “Wouldn’t you be far more intellectually stimulated if you taught secondary?” I wish I’d had the wit to point out that, for the teacher, intellectual stimulation is not derived from the complexity of student thinking. It comes from the process of working out what to do in response to student thinking – complex and simple.

I can easily convince myself of this “there is no such thing as trash” argument as long as I’ve got the right hat on. But something always makes me take it off.

Hatless, it occurs to me that I’ve just implied Mills and Boon is on a par with Emily Perkins, that no novel is of more worth to us culturally or aesthetically than any other. The trouble is nothing will convince me this is true. So I’m stuck in an argument with myself where trash does, and does not, exist; stuck spinning around in an argument neither of my two selves can win. Sticking the hat back on helps.

Now I can remind myself of my main point: Mills and Boon and Novel About My Wife can be read at the same intellectual level. Yes, got that. But in saying this I haven’t said they are equally well written and that they have equal cultural or aesthetic significance. Just because a novel can be put to intellectual use doesn’t mean it will necessarily be one of those texts that live inside all of us (whether we are conscious of them or not). Sometimes written hundreds of years ago, these are the texts our current conversations and actions can be traced back to; the ones that show us the historical weight of narrative on present events – they show us the agency of texts. Who knows, Novel about My Wife might one day have this kind of place in our culture. I doubt anything from Mills and Boon will.

But I’m left asking myself if I think Mills and Boon could be a useful part of secondary English classes even though its usefulness will be transitory. And the hat comes off again.

Shifting literacies , , , , ,

  1. sonjanz
    | #1

    I had to comment on this Juliet – I read a fantastic article in a now defunct women’s magazine (which I have seen similar elsewhere since) about how M&B being classified as trash is a feminist issue. Jane Austen was the M&B of her age!
    One of my little curiousities is to check out what gets put into the popular fiction versus contempory fiction sections of the book shop. Who decides? I have had authors of multiple books where it has changed at some point in their career. And why did I start to type “they got promoted” as though contempory is more legitimate than popular?

    I am such a huge reader across the genres that I can categorically say that I have read some superbly written M&B and some absolute rubbish from more “legitimate” authors. Reading fiction is about mood and enjoyment surely – and the lightness and happy ever after of M&B can be a great escape for relaxing at the end of a day reading complex reports.
    A place in a high school English class hmmmm goes to that reading for enjoyment concept we know is so important. A good M&B is short, tightly plotted, develops character…In fact you could probably do a good/bad comparison which is difficult to do with standard books. And what about the chance of some really engaged students? M&B is an “out of school” literacy experience – it’s not real reading. What would happen if we bought the out of school…in? To be honest the biggest barrier I could see is the move of many of the M&B genre towards erotica.
    Taking it beyond M&B – if we look at the Harry Potter phenemenon isn’t part of it that adults were engaged too? Kids not only read it themselves but often had to fight their mother for the copy of the book. In our house the books we all share are the best. As well as Harry, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series gets passed around my husband, me, my two adult daughters and a couple of friends – and discussed. Just today I recommended them to a semi-reluctant young adult reader. The Da Vinci Code was another community book example. At the moment my ten year old is enjoying sharing Percy Jackson with me and his friends. The Narnia stories… maybe its that general community acceptance which validates…and poor old M&B will never have that!

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